Monday, October 24, 2011

Situational Awareness in Mountain Rescue Operations - Stage II -  Comprehension and  Interpretation of the  Relevant Information 

The second stage of Situational Awareness, “comprehension and interpretation,” requires you to have and utilize your training and experience.  Training is a key component of teaching SAR workers, but experience is the key to understanding how to best utilize that training. 

The second stage of Situational Awareness is the stage wherein one attempts to comprehend and interpret the data collected in the first stage.  While the collection of data and the perception of the relevant information are important, the comprehension and interpretation of that data can not be overlooked. The key to this stage of Situational Awareness is that it requires one to have and utilize key training and experience.  For example, a rescuer in a high mountain rescue might have already perceived that the temperature is very hot.  Still, without proper training in helicopter management, that rescuer he might not be able to interpret that the high temperatures will have an effect on the rescue team’s use of helicopter resources – since temperature has a significant effect on helicopter performance at altitude.  Without the proper training, a SAR worker might not be aware of the limitation that temperature has on the performance of helicopter assets. 

Experience is also a key factor in this stage of Situational Awareness.  While training is essential for any SAR professional, there is no substitute for experience.  It is through experience that we learn and master the  important skills associated with interpreting data that is presented in the first stage of situational awareness. 

Understanding the Clues 
In order to interpret clues, you must first understand them.  But how do you interpret clues if those clues do not make sense?  On a search for a missing hiker one summer night, a rescue professional notified the search command post that he’d found “a bunch of orange pails” in the middle of a trail while searching.  The searcher went on to say that the pails were meticulously laid out in the shape of an arrow, pointing down the trail.   The Incident Command team struggled to figure out why there would be orange pails many miles back on a remote backcountry trail.  Several minutes later, the command team asked for a clarification from the rescuer, who coincidently was a southerner with a deep southern drawl in his voice.  He was asked, “What kind of orange pails are these?”  The man replied “You know, the kind of pails you pail off an orange before you eat it!”  The man was talking about orange PEELS, but that only became evident after the command team asked more questions.  The data presented did not make sense at first, but made complete sense later, once the command team remembered that the field rescuer was from Georgia, and had a distinct southern drawl. 

Interpreting the Clues Requires Training 
Do you have sufficient experience to interpret the information that you have assembled?  Traditional training might not teach you the skills necessary.  For example, one search and rescue team trains its members on helicopter skills in a unique and different way… the rescuers are not schooled in how to help a helicopter pilot, rather they are schooled in how to BE a helicopter pilot by learning how a pilot actually FLIES a helicopter.  As such, these SAR professionals are better able to think like a pilot. 

Recognizing the Frequency of those Clues 
As mentioned earlier, one should not only pay attention to the clues themselves, but also to the frequency of clues.  This can help a rescuer ascertain whether numerous seemingly inconsequential anomalies are coming together to draw one large problem.

Stay tuned to our blog for the continuation of our discussion on Situational Awareness with Stage 3 Projection into the Future. 

For more information on situational awareness in mountain rescue operations
, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

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